H.M. Margoliouth and Questions about Modernizing Traherne

H.M. Margoliouth, a prominent 20th century literary scholar and editor, raised important questions about whether or not Traherne’s text should be modernized, and, if so, how. Margoliuoth was no stranger to these questions. Thirty-one years before Margoliouth’s edition of Traherne’s Centuries and Poems was published by Oxford University Press, the same press had published Margoliouth’s 2-volume critical edition of The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell. Marvell was of course another great 17th century English metaphysical poet and contemporary of Traherne. In his Marvell publications, Margoliouth explained why he had created a “trustworthy text.” In some cases, he faithfully followed the text of the original printed editions and in some cases he felt obligated to follow manuscript versions. (see “To Modernize or Not to Modernize: Is It a Question?”, Joan Faust, Vol. 1 No.2 – Winter 2009, Andrew Marvell Society Newsletter).

Both at the beginning and end of Margoliouth’s edition of Traherne’s Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings, he elaborates on the editorial principles he has chosen for his edition. At the beginning of his Introduction, he explains, “In the present edition Traherne’s spelling, capitalization, and punctuation are retained. The numerous changes he made in his text are recorded in the notes, which also aim at giving as many references as possible.”

However, in the end of the book, Margoliouth humbly admits:

“This edition is, of course, not one which any seventeenth-century publisher would have produced. Such a publisher would, in the main, have introduced his own spelling and punctuation. He would have produced a book more readable in some respects than an attempt to reproduce the author’s manuscript literatum (except for abbreviations) and punctuatim. He would have done for his age exactly what Dobell did in 1908. I take this opportunity of saying that, though I have found some mistakes of transcription in Dobell, they are neither many nor serious. Dobell’s modernized text can safely be recommended to the ‘general reader’. Its existence has, of course, saved me much labour.”

While Margoliouth painstakingly dedicated himself to an edition that was not modernized, he prized the modernized edition that first introduced him to Traherne. So, as we journey with Traherne, do we have room in our packs for several editions of Traherne? Is that even necessary or helpful? Do varying editions of Traherne enable us to better experience Traherne’s message? These are useful questions. It is probably a good thing that we have options, some better than others.

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